A Visit to Hallgrímskirkja | Reykjavík, Iceland


Every city has a focal point, that one building or site that you use as a compass to determine your location and to help you navigate your way around.  Here are a few examples: 

  • In New York City it might be the Empire State Building or the Freedom Tower
  • In Boston it’s the Hancock building
  • In Berlin it might be the Berliner Fernsehturm
  • In Sydney it might be the Sydney Opera House or the Sydney Harbour Bridge
  • In London it might be Big Ben or the London Eye

DSC_6279_zps2bb85ab5While the focal point might be different depending on the person with whom you’re speaking, it’s fair to say that if you’re in Reykjavík, that building will most likely be Hallgrímskirka.

Hallgrímskirkja, which means church of Hallgrímur in Icelandic, is a Lutheran church in Reykjavík. It’s not just a Lutheran church in Reykjavík; it’s THE Lutheran church in Reykjavík on Skólavörðuholt, at the southeastern end of Skólavörðustígur overlooking the city. 

The tallest and largest church in Reykjavík, Hallgrímskirkja was designed by state architect Guðjón Samúelsson (1887-1950), who died before the church finished completion. Hallgrímskirkja was named for Icelandic hymn writer and poet, Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson (1614-1674). His best-known work, Hymns of the Passion, is still sung and recited as verse in homes throughout Iceland today.  Construction began on the church in 1945 and was completed in 1986 with the tower finished before the remainder of the church.  The crypt beneath the choir was consecrated in 1948, while the steeple and wings were completed in 1974 followed by the consecration of the nave in 1986. In 2008, the church underwent a major restoration of the main tower, and was covered in scaffolding. In late 2009, restoration was completed and the scaffolding was removed.

Before you even enter the church, you’ll see a statue of Viking Leifur Eiríksson (aka Leif Eiríksson) directly in front of the church.  Designed by American sculptor Alexander Stirling Calder (1870-1945), the statue measures just over 10 feet tall, 5 feet wide, and 5 feet deep (10’2-3/4″ tall x 62-1/2 ” wide x 67-1/2″ deep), it weighs a mere 3,000 pounds.  The United States congress authorized a statue of Leifur Eiríksson to be gifted to the people of Iceland on the 1,000th anniversary of the Alþing, Iceland’s parliament and was placed in its current position 15 years before the church’s construction. The plaque on the statue reads:

Leifr Ericsson son of Iceland discoverer of Vinland the United States of America to the people of Iceland on the one thousandth anniversary of the Althing A.D. 1930

But why a gift of a statue from the US to Iceland?  This from Frommers

It (the statue) was also a tacit acknowledgment that Leifur beat Christopher Columbus to North America by almost 500 years. (Excavations in Newfoundland have settled this question beyond a doubt.) 

Looks like it might be time that we rewrite our history books and discuss whether we should have Columbus Day off or if we now need a Leifur Eiríksson day in the US. 

TSG Tip: Did you know that there is a replica of this statue in the US?  It was originally intended to be placed in front of the Icelandic Pavilion at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.  Afterwards, it was sent to the Mariners Museum in Newport News, Virginia.  The sculptor, Alexander Stirling Calder, also carved George Washington as President on the Washington Square Arch in New York City. 

Inspired by the Icelandic landscape, Guðjón Samúelsson built this into the church’s exterior, with its prominent steeple, which “is often described in terms both primordial and futuristic — as if the church were some kind of volcano or glacier transformed into a rocket ship. The frontal columns are meant to resemble the hexagonal basalt formed by cooling lava.” (Frommers)  His inspiration came from the interesting and unique shapes and forms generated when lava cools into basalt rock.  At the top are three bells representing Reverend Hallgrímur Pétursson, his wife, and his daughter who died young.

While the exterior might look unusual or futuristic, the interior is anything but modern or cutting edge. The interior design is considered more traditional with Gothic high pointed vaults, tall, narrow windows, stained glass, traditional pews, and a mammoth sized church organ.  Built in 1992 in Germany by German organ builder Johannes Klais of Bonn, you cannot possibly miss the organ when you enter the building.  From Reykjavik Loves

Standing tall at an impressive 15m and weighing a remarkable 25 tons, this mechanical action organ is driven by four manuals and a pedal, 102 ranks, 72 stops and 5275 pipes, all designed to reproduce powerful notes capable of filling the huge and holy space with a range of tones – from the dulcet to the dramatic. Its construction was completed in December 1992 and has since been utilized in a variety of recordings, including some by Christopher Herrick.

7F7D143E-1EFF-4E2E-8279-2F0B1E8C2F4C_zpsne92s8xfThe exquisite Hallgrímskirka at night.  Beautifully lit with Leifur Eiríksson standing tall and proud out front.  

Nothing, and I do mean nothing, made me happier than while waiting inside Hotel Leifur Eiriksson for my ride for my Northern Lights tour, I spotted these two framed posters in the lobby.  You know you’ve made it when The Simpsons spoof you!

Next time we will look at the breathtaking views and no, I’m not exaggerating, from up high inside Hallgrímskirkja.

Hallgrímskirkja Church
Address: Hallgrímstorg 1
101 Reykjavík

General Admission:
Entry to the tower, adults: ISK 700
Entry to the tower, children 7-14 years old: ISK 100


  • The church and the tower are open daily from 9 AM –  5 PM. 
  • Holy Communion sung on Sunday at 11 AM and on Wednesday at  8 AM. 
  • Prayers on Tuesday at 10:30 AM. 
  • Meditation with organ music on Thursday at noon. 
  • Anglican service in English usually last Sunday of each month at 2 PM. 
  • Organ concerts mid June to mid August at noon on Thursday and Saturday with longer performances on Sunday at 8 PM